Deep down, I think we all have an attraction to the strange and unusual. Some people don’t want to admit it and others will just as soon look away in disgust or horror, but in actuality, for a number of reasons, those that we regard as different or as strange and unusual hold a fascination for us. Despite our best efforts, it’s still difficult not to stare awkwardly at those who live beyond the “norm” of society, those that don’t match our cultural and social expectations, or those who merely look different from us. Often we resort to insulting terms such as “weirdos”, “creeps”, or “freaks” to describe these people whom we fail to understand. But perhaps the greatest reason that we have this love/hate relationship with them is because they remind us of ourselves.
Perhaps there is no greater example within contemporary culture of our dualistic reaction to the social outsider than the 1932 Tod Browning horror-melodrama Freaks. The film, which has become beloved by some and reviled by others, is considered one of the first true cult classics and even today it still manages to pack a punch. The story is a deceptively simple tale about the companionship of a small group of sideshow performers and what happens when their inner circle is threatened by “normal” folk – the other great outsider. One of the aspects of the film that created such an outrage and controversy when it was initially released was the fact that unlike almost any other film of its day, director Browning chose to use real life human anomalies to portray the characters of the story.
Today, this makes the film an interesting contradiction in that it is at once both an exploitation film and an empathetic look at the lives of those who are rejected by the mainstream culture. However, ironically the film which served as a cautionary tale about judging one based upon appearances was almost unanimously panned by critics who had no desire to see “living monstrosities projected on the screen“. During later years as viewers re-examined this flawed masterpiece of vintage shock cinema, they were struck by the seeming contradiction of a film that exploits the subjects that it attempts to advocate. In spite of this controversy and indeed partially because of it, the film has endured for 80 years now and is regarded as a classic of horror cinema.
Yet the real stories of the sideshow freaks and the characters that populated the world of the carnevale spectacular are perhaps just as unbelievable and shocking as those of their fictional counterparts in Browning’s Freaks. These “freaks” and others have been resurrected via the skilled hand of modern symbolist painter Gail Potocki in a series of paintings that must be seen to be believed. So, if you dare read on, and you must, I shall share with you a glimpse into a world of grotesqueries, oddities, and anomalies that once scandalized the general public and left the faces of outsiders forever emblazoned in the minds of the world.